If we can’t “fix” the problem of overlapping congressional jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security, can we make congressional oversight work more efficiently?

That question has been rattling around in my mind over the past few weeks, especially as we look back at the events of the decade since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission – one that was tasked with looking at what happened and what should be done in response to it – have all been implemented save one. That one glaring exception is the failure of Congress to reorganize the way it provides oversight of homeland security matters.

In addition to the combined expertise represented on the 9-11 Commission, many others have written of the absurdity of having at least 88 congressional committees and subcommittees with some piece of the jurisdictional oversight turf over DHS. Voices from all sides of the political spectrum have weighed in with reasons why the current system should be changed. For reasons that, at least to me, create the perception of extreme hypocrisy, Members of Congress refuse to consolidate DHS oversight into fewer committees, with one Member calling it a “purposeful redundancy.” Congressional leadership in both parties has refused to confront “territorial” committee chairs.

As we sit in the middle of the August congressional recess, in an environment where “working cooperatively” seems to be a political liability, I wonder if another approach to the problem of overlapping, unnecessary and wasteful congressional oversight of DHS might be worth exploring. If we can’t get rid of the overlaps, can we at least force the “turf warriors” to sit at the same table?

What I propose is that any House committee (other than the Appropriations Committee) seeking to hold a hearing where a DHS official is a witness MUST hold that hearing jointly with the House Homeland Security Committee. The same thing could be done with Senate committees, which could be required to hold joint hearings with the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. If one of the committee chairs balked, then the Speaker of the House or the Majority Leader in the Senate would have the power to either cancel the hearing or force the committee chairs to cooperate.

The benefits of joint hearings are not nearly as great as would be the case where a single authorizing committee had exclusive jurisdiction, as is the case with the respective Armed Services committees when dealing with military issues. At a minimum, DHS officials would not have to show up in multiple locations to cover identical topics. That would save them countless hours of sitting in near-barren committee hearing rooms and could potentially create opportunities for committee members to talk with (versus talking past) one another.

It is not as if congressional committee hearings are packed with interested committee members. My experience is that over 95 percent of all hearings requiring DHS officials to be in attendance are held with fewer than 50 percent of the committee members ever showing up. There are generally an ample number of seats for joint hearings, irrespective of the committee room in which the hearing is held.

Admittedly, requiring joint hearings by committees with overlapping jurisdiction is not the same as implementing the final 9/11 Commission recommendation, but it is a start down the pathway to achieving the result the 9/11 Commission desired. Like my friend and former DHS S&T guru John Kubricky used to tell me, “Sometimes you have to measure progress in ‘inch stones’ rather than in ‘milestones.’”

Will it work? I honestly don’t know. But it is far better than the existing system. Something that forces cooperation among Members of Congress (especially those from the same political party) is not a bad thing at all. And if they are interested in cutting spending, just think of the money that would be saved by eliminating duplicate oversight hearings.

Maybe taking an “inch stone” approach is what we need to get this issue resolved. It is worth a try.

David Olive focuses his blogging primarily on the “business of homeland security” — the interaction of the private sector with the Department of Homeland Security and other national security agencies. Read More